Attack of the Wonks!

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As the Fordham Institute’s ESA Wonk-a-thon is coming to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As JayBlog readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. (If an author thinks I missed or misconstrued something, please yell at me in the comments section.) The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure all ESA students take NNR tests and track student outcomes. The state treasurer must ensure the application process is user friendly, distribute restricted-use debit cards, and conduct annual audits. Otherwise, providers should be free to innovate and parents should be free to choose among them.

Matthew Ladner (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should ensure financial accountability through restricted-use debit cards and the whitelisting of vendors and eventually of individual products. The market can foster quality through platforms where users rate providers (as happened informally in Arizona). The state should aggregate NNR test scores and hire an academic researcher to report on the data, but otherwise avoid trying to regulate quality.

Jonathan Butcher (Goldwater Institute): The state should ensure the ESA funds are being used for eligible educational purposes by reviewing receipts before issuing the next quarterly installment. Students should take NNR tests and the state should commission an academic researcher to report on the results. Otherwise, policymakers should rely on the market to ensure quality.

Tracey Weinstein (StudentsFirst): The state should “set a high bar for the quality of services offered by providers” and “eliminate providers who consistently fail to meet the mark.” The state should also provide ESA families with information about providers.

Andy Smarick (Fordham Institute): The state should “prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research” and “collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.” In the long term, researchers should “study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.”

Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans): Nevada should increase public funding to $7,000 per student with more for low-income, ELL students, and special needs students, and that educational institutions should be prohibited from charging ESA families additional tuition beyond the amount the state deposits in the ESA. 

Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation): State regulators should stay out of the way of the market. The state should primarily concern itself with ensuring taxpayer dollars are used only for eligible expenses and making the application process transparent and user friendly. Responsibility for academic outcomes should lie primarily with parents, though the state’s NNR testing requirement is appropriate.

Jason Bedrick (Cato Institute): Policymakers should resist the urge to overregulate. Quality is best fostered through the market process: provider experimentation, parental evaluation, and organic evolution. A robust market ensures quality by channeling expert knowledge (e.g. – private certification and expert reviews) and user experience (e.g. – platforms for user ratings). The state should limit its role to ensuring that ESA funds are spent only on eligible expenses and serving as a repository for information. 

Adam Peshek (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should primarily concern itself with providing financial accountability (restricted-use debit cards, auditing), but responsibility for academic outcomes should rest with parents. We must “remain vigilant against death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education): Nevada must recruit a “new breed” of bureaucrat that will “learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation,” “develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability,” “coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers,” ensure transparency, and “build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure” (among other objectives).

Travis Pillow (redefinED): Regulators should give providers the freedom to experiment (even though some experiments will fail). However, the state should ensure the health and safety of students and prevent financial fraud. The results of NNR tests should be reported to parents and the public. The state should provide an online forum for parents that would help catch administrative problems and could serve as a Yelp-like provider rating system. The state should give more money to low- and middle-income families and students with special needs. 

Robert Tagorda (SoCal education reformer): To operate at scale from the outset, the state treasurer’s office and state department of education must collaborate effectively. The state must broker information to ensure the marketplace functions properly, but it can’t do it alone. The state must foster organic solutions and exchanges of information such as platforms for user reviews.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen (Agudath Israel): “Almost universal” eligibility isn’t good enough. The state should expand eligibility to all students, not just those who attended a district school for 100+ days in the previous year.

There appears to be some consensus around financial accountability. The state must ensure that ESA families are only using taxpayer funds for their intended educational purposes. To that end, most of the wonks who addressed the matter called for utilizing restricted-use debit cards and/or auditing.

The primary area of contention is the role of the state in guaranteeing educational quality. Some want the state to set standards, measure performance, and perhaps even “eliminate” providers who don’t meet those standards. Others (myself included) respond: “Get your regulatory paws off me, you dirty technocrats!” are concerned that such efforts would stifle the very diversity and innovation that the ESA is intended to foster.

It’s an important debate. I commend both the Fordham Institute for hosting it and the participants for offering their insightful analysis. Differences in means aside, we all share the same end: fostering an education system in which all children have access to high-quality providers that meet their individual needs.

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19 Responses to Attack of the Wonks!

  1. Minnesota Kid says:

    I pledged to contribute $10 for every time “over-regulate” was used in this Wonk-A-Thon. Who do I pay? This was a fundraiser, right? It was better than the crappy popcorn you used to sell.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    If your summaries are accurate, Smarick had no business at all invoking Burke. Real Burkeanism is the opposite of what he promotes here. As usual, “Burkeanism” is a cover for “please don’t expose the injustice of the status quo so completely. Can’t you reveal the truth to the ignorant masses at a more comfortable pace?”

    The real Burkean in this collection is Michael Goldstein. As a more Lockean guy myself, I’m somewhere halfway between Goldstein and Travis Pillow.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Oops, looking back I now see it was you who described Smarick’s argument as “Burkean.” He may not have used that term. My apologies to him for misremembering.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Smarick invoked Burke:

        “This is not Edmund Burke’s brand of modest, gradual change.”

        On Facebook, he also linked to his piece and wrote: “My inner Edmund Burke wrestles my inner Milton Friedman.”

        I took him to task for invoking Burke, writing:

        Very interesting. I intend to respond to the entire series after I’ve read and digested all of the entries. I will note, however, that I think you got Burke wrong here.

        First, I think Matt [Ladner]’s right that the uptake will be relatively slow. Second, the ESA law is not as radical as it appears — it’s just that K-12 education is so radically out of step with everything else in American life (tell me where else the government assigns you a particular service based on the location of your home aside from garbage disposal).

        Burke was concerned about the government coming in between citizens and civil mediating institutions — which is exactly what district schools do. ESAs create space for those mediating institutions, which is something that Burke would applaud.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Apology retracted! 🙂

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      That said, I don’t see anything Burkean about a “harbormaster.”

      • Greg Forster says:

        Burke was very big on the authority of cultural and class elites. But that’s not the same as – in many ways it’s the opposite of – authority in the hands of democratically elected government or (especially) a technocratic bureaucracy.

      • Minnesota Kid says:

        By “Burkean” I assume that you guys mean smart, blond, and employed by the Heritage Foundation, right?

      • I meant Burkean as in Lindsey Burke. She, along with all Burkes, is obviously Burkean.

      • Greg Forster says:

        The definitive analysis of Burkeanism, in my view, comes from Distinguished Research Prof. Ellen Ripley: “I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

  3. matthewladner says:

    Burekeanism apparently does not include a good instinct for when to walk away from a blackjack table…

    • Greg Forster says:

      Correct. That’s why I’m not Burkean. There’s a lot of wisdom there, but at the end of the day it’s all voice, no exit.

  4. Mike G says:

    Excellent work. It’s useful to see one’s work summarized! I think I didn’t write as clearly as I’d want, so while I think your summary is fair, I’d like to take another shot:

    “If (and only if) you’re choosing to measure ESA in 10 years by **academic gains** (and I’m not saying you should, but that many will), then you need an unusually-skilled harbormaster, like NSNO in New Orleans, to goose supply. Which is very hard to goose. My view is a mere mortal “typical” harbormaster will FAIL to meaningfully affect the parent choices of Nevada parents, and in that case, ESA won’t in fact lead to large academic gains (though may well lead to happier parents and students, and other non-test gains).”

    • Mike G says:

      …Annnnddddd I’d like to withdraw the phrase “the parent choices of Nevada parents” – I can’t even get it right the second time! 🙂

  5. pdexiii says:

    If you rated our school based on test scores on a scale of 1 to 10 we’d be a 7. If you rated our school based on satisfied parents and students (we always have a wait-list) it would be 9-10. Edu-bureaucracies need to justify their existence, thus their tendency to insert themselves in the education choices parents should be making.

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